Studies in the
First Epistle of John
Part 10 1 John 3.1
The third chapter of John's first epistle opens up a new subject. It has already been observed that the first two chapters are complete in themselves and may, for all that we know, have originally constituted a separate letter. The end of the second chapter concludes one line of argument quite definitely and the beginning of the third as clearly commences an entirely fresh line of thought. The theme of the first two chapters is constancy — abiding in God, in Christ, in the light, in the Truth. The theme of the remaining three chapters of the epistle is love — God's love for us, our love for God, for Christ, for each other, for the Truth. John wants us to know that not only is Christian constancy, "abiding in Him", necessary, if we are to attain the "prize of the High Calling of God in Christ Jesus", but also the supreme quality of love, love in all its aspects and its powers. Just as in the first two chapters he tells us that it is little use a man claiming to be walking in the light when there is darkness in his own heart and mind, so now he tells us that we sadly deceive ourselves in claiming to love God if we have not love for our brother. And the love that we have for our brethren must be of the same quality as the love that God has for us. That is a sobering thought. No mere feeling of good fellowship, this: no tacit acceptance and toleration of our brethren without any deeper or more personal feeling. Those whom we recognise, as fellow members in the Body of Christ must be of as great concern to us as we ourselves are to God.
But before coming to that heart-searching thought John seeks to establish the foundation of our fellowship together and shows that our whole acceptance before God is based upon love : not, at first, our love for Him, but His for us. "Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God." (ch. 3. vs. 1). In that simple sentence of twenty words John preaches a most eloquent discourse enshrining the whole truth of our acceptance with God. It is of His love, a love greater than man has ever known or can ever conceive in relation to any other thing, and its outcome is that we, weak, puny things of earth, are become sons of God, offspring of the Most High, having the right of entry to His presence as children have the privilege of access to their natural fathers. When one compares the insignificance of mortals, inhabiting this grain of matter floating on its way through the vast recesses of space, with the majesty and magnificence of the One Who is King of kings and Lord of lords, dwelling in the light which no man can approach Unto, whom no man hath seen nor can see, the words of John seem all too inadequate to express the feeling which he has at heart. "Behold what manner of love" that has raised us to so lofty a position of honour and privilege in His sight'. What love is this? We know that the love of God extends throughout all His creation. None of His erring creatures are debarred from a share in the redeeming power of that love if they will. The most famous text in all the Bible tells us that God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son for its redemption. The text is so well-known, and so familiar, that we tend to lose sight of its significance. We think of the gift and to some extent fail to realise the depth of the love that inspired the gift. We reflect upon the love of Jesus Christ Who came to seek and to save that which was lost and we measurably overlook the love of the Father which inspired that coming. Of course both those manifestations of love are really one and the same love, for this is only one of the aspects in which "I and my Father are one" (Jno. 10. 30). And this oneness which subsists between the Father and the Son demands that we reject completely and for ever the old theological idea that Jesus waits to be merciful to the sinner whilst God demands only judgment upon the sinner. The old mediaeval paintings that depicted Christ protecting the fallen world from the vengeance of its angry God were little short of blasphemous; their creators can only escape that charge on the plea of ignorance. We in our day have no such excuse and we must realise that the entire Plan of Salvation is permeated through and through with the love of God, manifested in Christ Jesus our Lord. God is just; there can be no doubt about that, and Jesus is just also, for He is one with God, but God is also the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus, and Jesus Himself has said "he that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out" (Jno. 6. 37). These sublime words before us could never have been coined by John if he had believed, as many ill-instructed disciples in later days have believed, that Jesus' death on the Cross was a blood-sacrifice offered to God in order to appease His wrath with man. That view is occasionally met with even to-day and it is rank blasphemy. The wrath of God which is revealed from heaven against all unrighteousness cannot be appeased by anything short of the elimination of the sin that has provoked the wrath, and that wrath is directed against the sin and not the sinner. Hence the saying that is familiar to some of us "God hates the sin but loves the sinner". Those eight words at any rate express sound doctrine and true theology. When God the Father loved the sinful race of men, Jesus loved them too and came to save them; when Jesus the Son suffered as He must suffer, in the course of that act of redemption, God the Father suffered too. It could not possibly be otherwise and still be true that "I and my Father are one".
It is this love of God that is the guarantee of an opportunity for all men in the coming Age. He made men for life and not for death, and even although death must ever remain the penalty on wilful and irrecoverable sinners it is going to be a hard thing for those same sinners to steel themselves against all the persuasive influences God will bring to bear upon them during the Millennial Age. It is sometimes urged, as a reproach, that the gospel of the Millennium is a gospel of a second chance, and we do not need to apologise for the fact nor attempt to whittle it down by arguing that under present conditions of sin, no man really has had a fair "first" chance. The Prodigal Son in the parable had a second chance and the story ended happily. There are many Biblical characters whose histories show that they had a second chance to recover from past failures and demonstrate their loyalty to God. "How oft shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him" asked Peter ''till seven times?" How positively and forcefully came the answer of Jesus to him "Nay; until seventy times seven" (Matt. 18. 21-22). Jesus knew Himself to be fully in tune with the Father when He laid down that principle. Not until the deliberate sinner has rejected every incentive to righteousness the Heavenly Father can possibly put before him wil! Divine love return to itself and leave the sinner to the inevitable result of his wilful sin Even that will be the final proof of love; the love that withdraws this gift of life, that the recipient neither desires nor can use aright, granting him what is really a blessing to him, the only alternative to continued life in an environment which he resents and into which he will not fit.
God's great love for man, then, is shown in four main aspects. The first is His provision for man in creation. The earth and all it contains is so admirably fitted for the use and enjoyment and continued life of perfect humankind that we cannot but see here evidence of God's great love. Very soon after the beginning, we read of the first man to work and make articles in copper and iron; but it was God who stored the copper and iron ore in the heart of the earth, vast ages before Eden, for man to find in due time and convert to his use. We obtain our light and heat and power in this modern age very largely from coal; it was God Who caused to grow those rich forests of the Carboniferous Era, long ago, that they might eventually provide the black mineral that is so essential to our needs to-day. Upon the earth, below the sea, in the sea, in the air, everywhere we look, we can see evidence of God's love for man in the preparations that He made for man's well-being before ever man was.
Secondly, God's love is shown in His forbearance with man's sin. It is idle to pretend that the "high and lofty one that inhabiteth eternity" looks down with indifference upon the wickedness and cruelty of man. Surely it is only His infinite Wisdom—and His great Love—that restrains Him from doing what the prophet Isaiah upon one occasion besought Him to do, rend the heavens and come down in swift judgment. True, from time to time He has intervened in judgment—Eden, the Flood, the Exodus; many are the instances of such judgments—but always they have been^fe part of His calculated Plan and never has Divine judgment made an utter end. It has always left the way clear for a fresh start. That is a striking evidence of God's love for this sinful race.
Thirdly, God's love is shown in His plans for man's future. So very few know of these; we who hold this precious knowledge ought to esteem very highly the privilege that is ours. "As truly as I live, saifh God, the whole earth shall be full of my glory." "The work of righteousness shall be peace, and the effect of righteousness quietness and assurance for ever." "And my people shall dwell in a quiet habitation." "The tabernacle of God is with men and he will dwell with them." All these and many more are promises yet to be fulfilled and promises that are sure of fulfilment. They are all evidences of God's love for man and His determination that mankind shall yet attain to the condition of perfection that He has all the time intended.
Fourthly, God's love is shown in His contentment with man in the Ages of glory that are to follow the ending of the Millennial Age. The very phraseology of Scripture breathes the spirit of expectancy and anticipation which God manifests as He looks forward to that glad day that sees the consummation of His Plan upon earth. "And it shall come to pass, that from one new moon to another, and from one sabbath to another, shall all flesh come to worship before me, saith the Lord" (Isa. 66. 23). It is impossible not to sense the spirit of satisfaction with the completed work at pervades those words. "There shall be no more death, neither sorrow nor sighing, for the former things are passed away. And he that sitteth on the Throne saith, Behold, I make all things new" (Rev. 21. 4-5). Just as Jesus shall see of the travail of His soul and shall be satisfied (Isa. 53. 11) so will the Heavenly Father behold all that He has made, and say once again, as He did in the day of Adam's creation, "Behold, it is very goodl" In that eternal contentment with all that He has done with man and made of man in this earth we have a grand manifestation of so "great manner of love" bestowed by Him upon His earthly creation.
Then if this must be so with mankind upon earth, how great must be the love our Father cherishes for His spiritual family, the Church. The human race will spend eternity before the Throne, content in the radiance of His presence, but those who have been faithful to their covenant of consecration with Him in is Age are to spend eternity in the Throne, members of the family of heaven, having always direct access to the God and Father of us all. As members of the "Bride" of Christ, of the glorious celestial company that is to be associated with the Son in all that hereafter He is to do, there is surely a very intense sense in which the love of God is their portion. Although we cannot admit for one moment that God has "favourites", in the sense in which the world understands and uses that term, yet just as on earth there are family affections and loves that mean so much more than the affections of the wider circle, because of closer affinities and interests and sympathies, so it must be with the Most High and those whose hearts are given exclusively and wholly to Him. In the experiences of an ordinary life, those with whom we have gone through the most trying or dangerous experiences, those with whom we have laboured the most intensely for the attainment of some cherished ideal, are the ones for whom we normally have love of a depth and character that we do not find in us to extend to others. It is a love that has found its root and its sustenance in those common experiences and trials and strivings, and without them it could never have been. So with the love of God to His sons; without our coming to Him and our wholehearted consecration of ourselves to His service and our sincere endeavours to be conformed to His image, the image of His Son, He could never enter with us into this experience of Divine love of such degree.. We Christians have believed in God and witnessed for God and sacrificed for God when all has seemed to be against Him; we have held to our faith, enduring "as seeing Him who is invisible" (Heb. 11. 27); is it not to be expected therefore that there should be some reflection of all those things in the love wherewith the Father loves us?
This "what manner of love" that the Father has bestowed upon us therefore has two aspects. It is first of all of His great and abiding love for mankind that the opportunity of becoming the sons of God is offered to us. It is of His love for all mankind that He has provided that some may become sons of God in this Age, that they may be the means of reconciling to God all who will, in the next Age, and so complete the great purpose which was inspired by and is the embodiment of God's love. It is of that love that provision was made in Jesus that "whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life" (Jno. 3. 16), that in consequence we whose hearts are turned towards God may come to Him now in confidence, "having boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus" (Heb. 10. 19) and so come into this hallowed condition of sonship. And having thus entered, we shall experience, as the years pass by, more and more of that other aspect of God's love that is strengthened and deepened by our lives' conduct before Him and our devotion to Him. When the Apostle speaks of our being presented before the presence of the Father with exceeding joy he is using no empty phrase; there will be joy, exceeding joy, on both sides. "The Father himself loveth you" said Jesus, and the Father Who so loveth will most surely manifest "exceeding joy" when those who have loved Him supremely are at length conducted into His presence.
(To be continued)